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Research budgets cut amid food crisis, wheat worry

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[May 28, 2008]    ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -- Dr. Yue Jin, a kind-faced man in a blue lab coat, is the nation's bulwark against a devastating new plant disease. He's the only federal scientist whose main mission is protecting the $17 billion U.S. wheat crop from annihilation.

His budget's being cut -- in part because money has been drained off by Congress' pet projects.

Jin and other plant scientists have watched in alarm as mutant spores carried by the wind have spread a new strain of fungus from Africa across the Red Sea to infect wheat fields in Yemen and Iran, following a path predicted to lead to the rich wheat-growing areas of South Asia.

GlassMost of the wheat varieties grown worldwide -- including the vast bulk of those planted in the United States -- are vulnerable. The threat of an epidemic only adds to a global food crisis brought on by drought, floods, high food and fuel prices and a surge in demand.

But despite the emergency, Associated Press interviews and a review of budget and research documents show that spending for Jin's laboratory and others where breeders develop disease-resistant wheat plants are being reduced this year, their money diverted to other programs and earmarked for special causes of members of Congress.

"Earmarking has been going up, and our discretionary funds have been going down," said Henrietta Fore, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has long provided much of the money for international agriculture research labs.

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Most policymakers weren't around the last time wheat stem rust disease attacked the U.S. crop. It was in the early 1950s, and nearly half the crop was lost in parts of the upper Midwest as wheat plants developed brown patches that choked off their water and nutrients. Plant scientists responded by developing new wheat varieties with genes that made them immune to the fungus.

That worked for more than four decades, but now the new strain of the disease has surfaced. It's known as Ug99, named for where (Uganda) and when (1999) it was discovered.

There's an even more frightening development: The disease is evolving and infecting even wheat strains that had been thought to be resistant. It's much like what is happening in hospitals, where doctors are running out of options to treat infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The wheat threat comes with world stockpiles already at a 30-year low.


Dr. Jin works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the University of Minnesota, in greenhouses where he examines wheat samples infested with the telltale brown lesions of stem rust and seeks to identify plants whose genes resist the disease. His lab was hit by a $300,000 cut this year, 20 percent of its overall budget. The Bush administration made that reduction in a quest for budget savings. At the same time, money for international research centers that Yue works closely with, including a wheat laboratory in Mexico, saw their U.S. funding cut from $25 million to $7 million.

The threat to wheat, which provides 20 percent of the calories for the world's population, is but one facet of a food crisis that has sneaked up on policymakers. Overall U.S. spending for agricultural development around the world has dropped from more than $1 billion a year in the 1980s to less than one-third of that since 2000. "This amounts to neglect," says Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.

The international labs, part of a consortium called the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, have for years been financed in part by the Agency for International Development. However when it came time to dole out money this year, AID found it had little to give because Congress had specified that nearly all overseas development aid go to other priorities -- education, water projects, help for business start-ups, combating AIDS and malaria and promoting democracy.

When confronted by choices between international agricultural research and development projects affecting a particular country, the agency chose to shield the country-specific aid from cuts because it was deemed more important to U.S. relations with the recipient countries.

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The international labs also lost out when they were pitted against U.S. universities that conduct farm research. A difference: The U.S. researchers hire lobbyists and have political clout.

A group of public and land-grant universities that spent $170,000 to lobby in the first quarter of this year hired lobbyists including the former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Robert Livingston. The universities received $28 million in the AID budget, well above the $20 million they usually get, to fund programs such as sustainable agriculture, pest management, fish farming, and peanuts. AID says the increase is part of what forced CGIAR's funding to drop.


The cuts in agricultural research budgets couldn't come at a worse time, says Dr. Norman Borlaug, the 94-year-old Nobel laureate best known as the father of the "Green Revolution" that brought adequate food supplies to developing countries around the world in the mid-20th century. Lulled by that success, "the public and policymakers became complacent" about maintaining research, Borlaug said in an interview.

The result, he said, is a decline in living standards that is bad for everyone -- the United States included. Food riots already have occurred in Egypt and Haiti this year. "Empty stomachs and human misery aren't a very good foundation for building understanding between nations," Borlaug said.

There are belated efforts to find additional research money. Borlaug met with key congressional officials last week and came away with a promise that they would take a new look at the problem. President Bush asked Congress on May 1 for $770 million to help alleviate the food crisis, but it's unclear whether any of it will be directed to research. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in April gave $27 million to help fund rust research in Mexico, Kenya and Ethiopia.


A Government Accountability Office report due out this week concludes that the United States and other developed countries have failed to give proper attention to helping their poorer neighbors grow sufficient food to feed their people. No one in the government has taken responsibility for championing the issue; the administration blames Congress, and Congress blames the administration.

"The United States is stepping away from one of its core contributions to world food security," says Jim Peterson, a wheat breeder at Oregon State University. "It takes 10 years to develop a new wheat variety. If we start today and have to incorporate new resistant genes, we may already be too late."

He adds: "Not to think there's any politics in food, but guess what?"

[Associated Press; By JIM DRINKARD]

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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